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The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs

3.5 of 5 stars 3.50  ·  rating details  ·  269 ratings  ·  45 reviews
The first-ever inside look at DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the maverick and controversial group whose futuristic work has had amazing civilian and military applications, from the Internet to GPS to driverless cars

America's greatest idea factory isn't Bell Labs, Silicon Valley, or MIT's Media Lab. It's the secretive, Pentagon-led agency known as DARPA
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 20th 2009 by Smithsonian (first published 2009)
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G. Branden
Apr 05, 2010 G. Branden rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommended to G. Branden by: NPR
Shallow and uncritical.

Goodreads's prompt for review text includes the language "what I learned from this book"; my answer to that is "not nearly as much as I'd hoped".

This title is mostly gee-whiz science writing with nearly all of the content that would be interesting to a scientist or engineer elided and replaced with biographical profiles of DARPA program managers and directors. For variety, he includes you-are-there stories of how he cleverly obtained entré to DARPA principals--entirely on
Sarah Sammis
I love to browse the new shelves of nonfiction books at my local library. One recent title that caught my attention because of it's goofy title was The Department of Mad Scientists by Michael Belfiore.

The book covers many of the recent advances by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, some which have made their way into civilian applications and others that are perhaps on the horizon. There are chapters on artificial limbs, the internet, GPS and driverless cars.

The chapter that made me p
A book that SHOULD be a lot more interesting than it actually is, it's best passages concern the founding of the agency, its tumultuous early history and its role in the Information revolution. It quickly devolves, however, into a catalog of flashy demos, and features some strangely egocentric extended passages by the author (I'm so sorry it was difficult to contact the Darpa public relations office. Being a writer sounds hard.) Finally, while tele-surgery, artificial limbs and ramjets are inter ...more
Oct 16, 2015 Richard marked it as to-read-3rd
Recommended to Richard by: New York Times
Read the New York Times article: The Body Electric.
I've always been aware of some of the DARPA history just from being aware of the beginnings of the ARPANET (now known as the Internet) and I knew they were into a lot of other interesting projects, but I have come away from this book with a lot more respect for the organization. Respect may be understating it, I think I'm in awe of how the federal government can manage to create something so amazing, and under the auspices of the Department of Defense no less. "DARPA is a national treasure".

Belfiore provides a very fascinating overview of DARPA to include "case studies" on some of their current projects and a deep dive into their culture; which I'd sum up as "imagine the impossible and prove it is possible - fast." The chapters I enjoyed the most were the requisite story of how DARPA "built" the Internet (which was just amazing to read about in detail), the TraumaPod, and the goal to build the perfect prosthetic limb. As you read this book though you can't help but have a tinge of ...more
The topic was excellent and overdue. The treatment, I thought was rather sophomoric and spent time on superficial aspects. Written by a Wired magazine journalist, it is about the same quality of writing - a quick flight over a State, but never enough to really see the State, much less interact with the State understand what it really has and is.
Troy Blackford
This was an interesting and rare look at DARPA, the governmental arm where research leads to new discoveries. They are really secretive, so this examination of some of their recent, unclassified projects is a rare thing. We get to learn about biomechanical prosthetic technology for the injured, automated medical treatment, self-driving cars, and multiple-times-faster-than-the-speed-of-sound scramjets. In between the cracks of these stories, we learn about the history of the DARPA organization. A ...more
A well-told story of a little known government agency that has had and is likely to continue to have an important impact on the world and how we live. I think many of us are aware that DARPA was responsible for bringing the Internet into being, but they are doing so much more.

I grieved when Bell Labs was sold with Lucent to the French firm Alcatel. I've been frustrated in my dealings on behalf start-ups with IBM's Watson Labs, with their bureaucracy and "Not invented here" attitude. It was surp
Jun 12, 2010 Mike rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
I selected this book based on the sub-title ("How DARPA is Remaking Our World..."), not because I had read the author's previous book, "Rocketeers". In general it was well-written and researched. I am not sure if it is because Belfiore writes mostly for shorter media (blogs, articles, and so on), but I found the book to be a bit "breezy" and a quick read: not quite as "meaty" as I would have hoped for.

But, the subject matter (i.e. the projects he reports on and the organization itself) are both
Theresa Liao
While I enjoyed the beginning of the book when the author talked about the past projects done by DARPA, the rest of the book did not seem exactly coherent. While I understand the nature of projects in research and industry, the authors introduced too many personnels and the story was lost (I spent most of the time trying to remember who does what project). Some of the projects mentioned were also not exactly ahead of the curve anymore. As for the idea of DARPA itself, it is troubling to see that ...more
An inside look into DARPA, specifically following some of the agencies more successful projects. The book discusses the origins of DARPA - basically after WWII, there was a lot of power grabbing to see who would develop America's space program. The forerunner as DARPA temporarily took on this challenge. One of the reasons it was able to find the day of light was that it was specifically structured as a government research agency leveraging the free market, which appealed to Eisenhower. After NAS ...more
This book was definitely a geeky pleasure for me. I read it and just enjoyed hearing about all these crazy technologies that were being developed, which was awesome. I was particularly excited to read about the autonomous car program, because for most of my five years at Stanford, I walked past those autonomous cars sitting outside the Mechanical Engineering Research Laboratory everyday (some of these cars are now being worked on at Google) (also, it makes the grad students "driving" the cars re ...more
A good read on the true history of DARPA and introduces some very interesting people and projects. It makes one appreciate just how unlikely it's establishment was, and therefore just how much of a fortunate 'accident' the world-changing results of its work have been.

However, I felt this could have been a much better book if it actually delved deeper into the science and technologies. Perhaps showing the authors bias (a journalist), every time the narrative came close to getting into fascinating
Kristin Lieber
The story of DARPA, a defense agency created out of the space race, tries to keep the USA at technologies cutting edge. This book is a collection of what feel like long essays about different aspects and people of DARPA. What bothered me about this book was a lack of critique of spending and programs. Every program is grand and for the greater good. The research continues mutually assured destruction. DARPA researches a weapon, someone develops a defense, DARPA develops a defense, someone create ...more
The story of DARPA, a defense agency created out of the space race, tries to keep the USA at technologies cutting edge. This book is a collection of what feel like long essays about different aspects and people of DARPA. What bothered me about this book was a lack of critique of spending and programs. Every program is grand and for the greater good. The research continues mutually assured destruction. DARPA researches a weapon, someone develops a defense, DARPA develops a defense, someone create ...more
Very intriguing portrait of the beginning of NASA, the internet, Cold War arms build up and more.

Would I recommend this to a friend?

For sure. If you like to read Wired Magazine or Engadget on the web you'll likely dig this. Very cool in terms of history of the space program in US and how the space race led to huge government investment in technology research leading to among other things, the Internet as we know it today! Chapters on artificial limbs blew me away also. The nice thing about thi
Inspiring read... perhaps there is hope for this world yet!
Of course, there are a lot of acronyms in this book - so many that they're hard to remember even after they're written out. Plus a lot of people to keep straight...The way that DARPA is run is interesting. I wouldn't know if the management style makes it better at what it does than other organizations are, but according to this book, it has a lot of accomplishments. I think those accomplishments could have been gone through at less length, and an organization chart for DARPA would have been help ...more
Jun 01, 2010 Jill is currently reading it
I will update my review when I am done, but this book is really, really fascinating. It is about the history and projects done at DARPA. This is a little known government agency in the defense department where scientists and engineers can come do very futuristic projects with no red tape. It has been very eye opening to see just how much of our modern technology has come out of this department. It is well written and very engaging. I highly recommend it.
Kevin Moore
This is a fantastic look at a government organization that has been responsible for creating some of the technologies that now shape our everyday lives like GPS and the Internet. It also provides insight into some of the projects currently underway such as self-driving cars and hypersonic jets and into what the world of tomorrow might look like. Well written, easy to follow, and incredibly interesting I couldn't put this book down.
Jul 25, 2011 Martin added it
What an amazing topic and series of subjects this book discusses. The chapter on battlefield Trauma Pods blew my mind with the possibilities. Probem is, it's incredibly, depressingly dully narrated. The writer wrote a total of two sentences that could be considered jokes. Hey bud, loosen up a little! In more energetic hands, this could have been a masterpiece, instead it's only a quite good book.
Jack Vinson
This book has some interesting anecdotes about rejects from DARPA, but the whole thing can be summarized with, "They fund projects that no one else can or will." Oh, and the author had never heard of DARPA before. There was a little too much about how great the author was at getting through the secrecy walls.

As an engineer, DARPA would be a really cool place to work.
I have bought this book twice both times as presents for guys with a tech bent. Overall good book reads like separate magazine length stories in the sections which describe the different projects which was appreciated by the two readers who got this as a gift. I found it a little rah rah america but I suppose that is to be expected given the subject matter.
D.m. Grace
This is a fascinating read about DARPA and how they have shaped our lives, without us even knowing it. It's interesting and a little disconcerting to see how much of our everyday technology has roots in military technology.

If you're interested in where technology is invented and the processes that happen behind closed doors, this is a highly recommended read.
The story of Darpa told through a look at several important projects over the years, including the development of prosthetics, DarpaNet, the predecessor of the Internet, diverless robotic vehicles, hypersonic transport vehicles, and alternative energy development projects. A fascinating and inspiring story.
"Nice overview of the secretive research arm of the Department of Defense. Each chapter focuses on a specific research project. Artificial limbs, telepresence medical robots, alternative space transportation systems, robotic cars, stealth planes, super-sonic planes. What more do you need?"
So-so book written in the same general gee-whiz style as Wired, surveying a bunch of neat DARPA projects. A bit too much of the "I had NO IDEA anyone was working on THIS!" feel, but it's likely that most people who would read this *don't* know anyone is working on this sort of stuff.
Ian Billick
Really disappointing. Whoever compared DARPA to the Bell Labs doesn't know what he is talking about. It's written by a DARPA groupie excited to be on the inside. Little insight into how DARPA works and how successful it is been relative to other approaches to science.
Boring (focuses only on the engineering projects of DARPA, and especially boring parts of them), mediocre prose (where do they get these writers?).
The part where Belfiore can't understand/see the purpose of the natural-language HCI interaction is kinda weird.
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Michael Belfiore is an author, journalist, and speaker on the innovations shaping our world. He has written about game-changing technologies for the New York Times, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian, Air & Space, Financial Times, and other outlets. He is an International Aerospace Journalist of the Year Award finalist.

Michael has appeared as a commentator on the Fox Business Netw
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